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Stories of Web Users
How People with Disabilities Use the Web


The following stories are selected scenarios of people with disabilities using the Web, to highlight the effect of web accessibility barriers and the broader benefits of accessible websites and web tools.

Note: The following scenarios do not represent actual individuals and do not address every kind of disability.

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Mr. Lee, Online shopper with color blindness

Mr. Lee wants to buy some new clothes, appliances, and music. As he frequently does, he is spending an evening shopping online with his tablet computer. He has one of the most common visual disabilities for men: color blindness, which in his case means an inability to distinguish between green and red.

More about Mr. Lee

Mr. Lee has difficulty reading the text on many websites because they use color combinations with poor contrast for text and images, which appear to him in indistinguishable shades of brown. For example, some websites highlight discount prices using red text, but all of the text look brown to him. Other websites use red to indicate required fields on forms, but again he cannot tell which fields have red text.

Mr. Lee prefers websites that use colors with good contrast, and indications that do not rely on color alone. One of his favorite websites accomplishes this by:

  • including the name of the color while showing a sample of the clothing;
  • adding the word "discount" to discounted prices in addition to showing them in a different color;
  • using text cues, such as an asterisk, to indicate the required fields on the order form in addition to showing them by color.

After additional experimentation, Mr. Lee discovered settings in his web browser that allow him to define customized color combinations for text, links, and the background. He also found a setting for high color contrast combinations in his web browser that he can switch on when he encounters websites that are difficult to read. However, this approach does not work for all websites — some are not coded to allow readers to override the default presentation.

Eventually, Mr. Lee bookmarked a series of online shopping sites where he could get reliable information on product colors or where he could override the colors, and not have to guess at which items were discounted.

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Mr. Jones, Reporter with repetitive stress injury

Mr. Jones is a reporter for an online journal who must submit his articles using a web-based authoring tool (a content management system – CMS) provided by the publisher. Over his twenty-year career, Mr. Jones developed repetitive stress injury (RSI) in his hands and arms, and it has become painful for him to type.

More about Mr. Jones

Mr. Jones does not use a mouse because it strains his wrists. He also cannot type for extended periods of time without serious pain. After dedicated research and consultation, Mr. Jones developed an approach that allows him to continue working as a reporter. He uses:

  • keyboard with an ergonomic layout to relieve strain on his hands and arms;
  • web browser with keyboard support to use websites without a mouse;
  • voice recognition software to control computer functionality by voice;
  • mobile phone to dictate long passages of text rather than typing.

It took him several months to become sufficiently accustomed to using voice recognition software and be comfortable working with it for many hours at a time. It also took him a while to learn the keyboard commands built into his web browser and use them effectively on different types of web pages.

Still, Mr. Jones cannot use websites that do not provide keyboard support. For instance, some websites have forms and controls that do not have keyboard equivalents. To activate these, he would have to use a mouse instead of voice recognition or typing, and this would worsen his RSI. Many websites also do not provide mechanisms to skip over forms, menus, and other parts of a web page using the keyboard alone. To navigate through such websites, he would have to use the keyboard extensively, and this would again strain his hands.

For Mr. Jones to continue working with the publisher, web developers built customized workarounds into the CMS to add some of the keyboard support that was initially missing. It is not an optimal solution and only works for some of the functions, but the publisher intends to upgrade the CMS to one with full keyboard support, especially since other employees found that keyboard support was easier on their hands.

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Ms. Martinez, Online student who is hard of hearing

Ms. Martinez is taking several distance learning courses in physics. She is 62 years old and has been hard of hearing since birth. She can hear some sounds but not enough to understand all speech, so she learned sign language early on in addition to the written language. She likes to use text messaging and chat to communicate with her instructors and classmates.

More about Ms. Martinez

She had little trouble with the curriculum until the university upgraded their online material to a multimedia approach, using an extensive collection of audio lectures. For classroom-based lectures, the university provided sign language interpreters and CART writers (professionals typing spoken language verbatim). However, for web-based instruction, they initially did not realize that accessibility was an issue, then said they had no idea how to provide the material in accessible format.

With the help of a local disability organization, Ms. Martinez was able to point out that the university was clearly covered by a policy requiring accessibility of the online educational material. She was also able to show the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as a resource providing guidance on how to make websites accessible, including those with multimedia content.

The university had the audio-only lectures (no video) transcribed and made these transcripts available through their website along with audio files. For multimedia presentations that include video and audio, the university provides captioning of the audio. Ms. Martinez uses a media player that displays these captions directly below the video so that she can better understand the context of what is being said.

Through this process, the university discovered many more benefits of transcripts and captions. For instance, it was much easier to comprehensively index the accessible multimedia resources and provide them to the search engine of the website. They also found they can provide captions in other languages to support international students, students who could not download or play the audio, and much more.

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Ms. Laitinen, Accountant with blindness

Ms. Laitinen is the chief accountant at an insurance company that uses web-based documents and forms over a corporate intranet. She is blind and does not read Braille, like many other blind computer users.

More about Ms. Laitinen

Ms. Laitinen uses her desktop computer and mobile phone to access the Web. On her computer she uses:

  • screen reader software that interprets what is displayed on the screen and generates speech output;
  • web browser with keyboard support to help use websites without a mouse.

She uses the keyboard to navigate websites, often by jumping from heading to heading to get an overview of what is on a web page. Her screen reader indicates the structural information on a webpage such as headings, column and row headings in tables, list items, links, form controls, and more. She has become accustomed to listening to speech output at a speed that her co-workers cannot understand at all. However, when websites are not coded correctly and do not include structural information, Ms. Laitinen would have to read every web page from top to bottom to find the information that she needs, which is unmanageable. She avoids such websites where she can, both for business and for leisure.

Her company uses tables to organize much of the information on the intranet documents, which can sometimes be difficult to read by people using screen readers. However, since the tables in these documents are marked up properly, she readily orients herself to the information in the tables. The materials also include alternative text for images, labels for form elements, and other navigational cues that are interpreted by the screen reader.

As one of the more senior members of the accounting staff, Ms. Laitenen must frequently train employees in different locations using a virtual learning environment. This includes video conferencing, document and slide sharing, as well as a live chatroom. It was a challenge to find a tool that is accessible to her and other employees with disabilities, but in the end, this proved to be more beneficial for most of the staff.

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Ms. Olsen, Classroom student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia

Ms. Olsen attends middle school and particularly likes her literature class. She has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with dyslexia — a combination that, in her case, leads to substantial difficulty reading. However, with new accommodations to the curriculum, she has become enthusiastic about this class.

More about Ms. Olsen

Her school recently started to use more online curricula to supplement class textbooks. She was initially worried about the reading load since she reads slowly. She experimented with text-to-speech software that highlighted the text on the screen and read it aloud at the same time. She found she was able to read much more easily when she could see and hear the text, instead of struggling over every word.

When she goes onto the Web, she finds that some websites are much easier for her to use than others. Some pages have useful graphics and illustrations that help her quickly focus on sections she wants to read. In some cases, though, where the graphics are animated, it is very hard for her to focus and she is constantly distracted by the movement. She set her web browser to freeze or hide animated graphics so that she can concentrate on the relevant information but that does not always work on every website.

One of the most important things for her is the level of accessibility of the online library catalogs and the general search functions on the Web. Until recently, Ms. Olsen often needed to visit the library physically, to seek assistance in finding the information that she needs. Today, the accessible online library catalog of the school enables her to find the right information without any help at any time and from any device — her mobile phone, tablet, or laptop.

Her teacher taught a number of different search strategies, but sometimes the search options are still quite confusing for her. She finds that websites that provide error corrections and suggest alternative spellings assist her significantly. Also, websites that provide multiple navigation mechanisms such as a navigation bar, a search box, a sitemap, or bread-crumb trails, are easier for her to use.

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Mr. Yunus, Retiree with low vision, hand tremor, and mild short-term memory loss

Mr. Yunus is 85 years old and started to use the Web several years ago to stay in touch with family and friends and to read about art history. He has reduced vision, hand tremor, and mild short-term memory loss.

More about Mr. Yunus

Mr. Yunus regularly reads selected news websites and tracks several blogs that interest him. He also uses several social networking sites with which he can communicate with his children, grandchildren, other relatives, and friends. Mr. Yunus maintains a blog where he writes about art history and other topics that he enjoys. His grandchildren set up a photo-sharing website that his family uses to post pictures and videos, and he enjoys seeing family members who are far away and that he otherwise can not see as frequently.

Mr. Yunus has difficulty reading small text and clicking on small links and form elements. His daughter gave him a specialized mouse that compensates hand trembling and showed him how to enlarge the text on websites using the web browser settings, since enlarging makes reading texts and clicking links easier. His web browser has a zoom function that enlarges the entire page and a text enlarging setting that only increases the text size. He prefers to enlarge the text only rather than the whole web page since zooming the entire web page on his browser distorts the images and forces him to scroll horizontally to read some of the text. Besides the difficulty in using a mouse, it is also difficult for him to concentrate on scrolling and reading at the same time.

Unfortunately, Mr. Yunus discovered that many websites are not designed to support text enlarging. For instance, sometimes the text can not be resized, or the text on the web pages starts to overlap each other as he increases the text size. Another barrier that he encounters is CAPTCHA images that he finds on several social networking websites. These distorted images of text are intended to tell computers and humans apart, but Mr. Yunus cannot read the small and distorted text, even if he enlarges the image. Only a few websites provide alternatives to CAPTCHA images that are more accessible to him.

Mr. Yunus has gradually found and bookmarked websites that work well for him. He also found a web browser that helps him organize these bookmarks, and that shows him pictures of his favorite websites so that he does not need to remember their web address or name.

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Mr. Sands, Supermarket assistant with Down syndrome

Mr. Sands has worked for the past year bagging groceries for customers at a supermarket. He has Down syndrome and has difficulty with abstract concepts, reading, and doing mathematical calculations.

More about Mr. Sands

Mr. Sands usually buys his groceries at the supermarket where he works because he is familiar with it. He sometimes becomes confused because there are so many product choices, and he finds it difficult to keep track of how much he is spending. He has difficulty re-learning where his favorite products are each time the supermarket changes the layout of its products.

Recently, he downloaded an app on his mobile phone for an online grocery store. He explored the app the first few times with a friend. He found that he could use the app without much difficulty because of clearly indicated items and easy to understand information and instructions in simple language. The navigation was consistent and easy to use. The app also provided a search functionality that helped him find items when the navigation did not show them immediately.

His friend also showed him accessibility features on his mobile phone that help him complete the order and checkout forms. These functions include word prediction which highlights a selection of possible words based on the first few characters that he can quickly select. Mr. Sands uses this feature frequently when he is entering text, for example when he is writing comments and product reviews. He is happy that the app provides an opportunity for him to review and correct entries before they are sent.

The app also offers an option that lets him select from a list of products that he has ordered in the past or that he chose as his favorites. Once he decides what he wants to buy, he selects the item and puts it into his virtual shopping basket. The app gives him an updated total each time he adds an item, helping him make sure that he does not overspend his budget.

Mr. Sands now shops on the online grocery store a few times a month, and just buys a few fresh items each day at the supermarket where he works. He is one of the many happy customers of this usable app.

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Ms. Kaseem, Teenager with deaf-blindness

Ms. Kaseem uses the Web to find new restaurants to go to with friends and classmates. She is deaf and recently became legally blind too. In her case, this means she can see small portions of a screen, which allows her to read text when it is enlarged.

More about Ms. Kaseem

At home, Ms. Kaseem uses the following combination of hardware and software to use the Web:

  • screen magnification software to enlarge the text on websites to a suitable font size;
  • screen reader software that displays text on the screen on a refreshable Braille device;
  • large computer screen with high resolution and high luminosity (brightness).

She uses screen magnification to enlarge small portions of a web page on the entire screen. The magnifier also enlarges the mouse pointer on the display so that she can see it. When screen magnification is not sufficient, she uses a screen reader to drive the refreshable Braille display, which she reads slowly because she started to learn Braille only recently.

Ms. Kaseem also uses a portable electronic Braille notetaker when she is not at home. It is a small hand-held device with a refreshable Braille display that provides basic functionality such as note taking, calendar, e-mail, and web browsing. She has a device which also offers GPS, which she uses for orientation and to navigate around the city.

She often uses the website of her local public transportation service to plan her trips. However, the bus schedules get distorted when she enlarges the font because the text does not wrap and reflow properly. The schedules for the local train are in a different format that allows better enlarging. The local trains website also uses proper markup to indicate the page headings, column and row headings in tables, list items, links, form controls, and more. Her friend told her that this website was easier to use by others using a mobile phone too.

Ms. Kaseem found advice on Contacting Organizations about Inaccessible Websites and notified the web team of the public buses website about the accessibility barriers she encounters on the website. She also explained how the website of the public trains works better for her and other mobile phone users and hopes she will soon get a response.

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